Global Water for Food Institute Races to Find Sustainable Solutions

By Mary Garbacz

Water for Food Institute

Founding gift focuses on water, agriculture and doubling world food production with the same amount of water and land

Nebraska's strengths in agriculture, water and training scientists in all things that grow have come together to establish the global Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska. Experts from NU and around the world will collaborate, racing the clock to address the world's challenge of growing twice as much food by 2050 using the same amount of land and water.

"Right now, water for agriculture is about 75 to 80 percent of the consumptive use of fresh water worldwide. Not only do we need to produce much more food with a finite resource, we need water for other purposes," said James B. Milliken, President of the University of Nebraska. Developing countries also need improved availability and quality of water for drinking and for sanitation, he added.

A $50 million gift to found the institute was provided in early 2010 by the Robert B. Daugherty Charitable Foundation. Daugherty founded Omaha-based Valmont Industries, one of the world's leading manufacturers of center pivot irrigation systems. Milliken said Daugherty is committed to the sustainable use of water for agriculture and also believes that soon, people around the world will know that this institute has solutions to challenges related to water for agriculture.

The university will build on the founding gift through funding partnerships with government, university and additional private sources, Milliken said. The key elements of the institute will be established rather quickly, including hiring an institute director and directors for research and policy analysis, then recruiting talented graduate students to take classes and conduct research. The basics of the institute have been in place for two years; the Daugherty Foundation sponsored the first annual University of Nebraska International Water for Food Conference in May of 2009, and with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, sponsored the second conference in May, 2010.

Nebraska's Strengths in Water Research

Nebraska's economy is largely dependent on agriculture and the state already has a significant role in feeding the world, Milliken said, so locating the Water for Food Institute in Nebraska was a natural choice. The most heavily-irrigated state in the country, Nebraska sits above the largest freshwater natural resource in North America - the Ogallala Aquifer - so water quality, quantity, regulation, use and sustainability has long been a research focus in the state. Milliken said the Water for Food Institute will build on the success of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Water Center, which has been in existence for nearly 60 years and draws its nearly 100 faculty members from many parts of the university. The range of disciplines includes hydrology, engineering, plant science, drought mitigation, political science and law - addressing all aspects of the water challenges in the state. The Water for Food Institute will be located on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, but also will draw on expertise from faculty from all four NU campuses. The institute will eventually be located on Nebraska Innovation Campus.

Facing the Challenge

"We need to be more efficient about the way we use water today; we need to produce crops that will survive and thrive with less water; we need to increase yields," Milliken said. Reaching those goals will be a challenge in Nebraska; it will also be a challenge around the world. Good policies must be put in place and good governmental decisions made about how this very important resource is used, he said. Regardless of the water challenges in Nebraska, "it's even more acute in other places around the world, so we need the best science to inform our decision-making and we think that's something we can contribute to," Milliken said.

Benefits for Nebraska and the World

"We have, we think, a great deal to offer the world. We also think by being the place in the world that is leading the discussion on the use of water for food, water for agriculture, there will be benefits for Nebraska," Milliken said. Degree programs will be created for undergraduate and graduate students that will create the most important place in the world for people who want to study and work in the area of sustainable use of resources for production of food. "We will become a center for scholarly activity for the best research in a range of disciplines," he added. Besides generating solutions from the Lincoln-based institute, the state will learn from the experts around the world who come to Nebraska and contribute to global solutions, he said.

"We'll become a place for practical solutions for water in Nebraska and elsewhere, but because Nebraska will be the center for this activity in the world, it will pay enormous dividends," Milliken said. "We will be a talent magnet for faculty and for students who are interested in making a difference in the use of water resources for agriculture."